By Alex Eidman

Niasia Alvarez, 23, recording her music in a makeshift studio at a friend’s apartment on the Lower East Side. Alvarez works at The Door during the week, an organization that provides services for at-risk youth. Photo by Alex Eidman.

 

Niasia Alvarez, 23, knows what it’s like to be alone.

At 15, she ran away from her home in Hunts Point. She said her parents were hardworking people, but didn’t show her the love and attention she craved.

“My sister got my parents attention by getting arrested for selling heroin at 14,” Alvarez said. “I thought I could do the same by running away.”

Alvarez said she lived on the streets for two years. At night, she slept on the train, in the park and, when she could, crashed at friends’ houses. She also attended Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School, and said she got straight A’s.

“I loved school — it was the only kind of stability I had in my life at the time,” Alvarez said.

Alvarez said she was always looking for ways to make money. In her sophomore year, she met two older guys in the neighborhood and with them, engaged in frequent nighttime robberies.

“We had to do certain things to support our habits and our lifestyles,” Alvarez said. “That included robbin’ and stealin’. We took wallets, did stick ups, we was buck wild.”

Alvarez was almost 17 when she was arrested for the first time, for possession of marijuana. She said that because she had no prior convictions and was a good student, she was placed on supervision, a lighter sentence than probation.

By her junior year, Alvarez said she was regularly smoking marijuana, and continued to steal. She said her teachers often found her dozing off in class, but were lenient because they liked her.

Eventually Alvarez’s teachers called her parents to express concern. She said the school was shocked to find out she hadn’t been home in two years.

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Alvarez spent time at a Manhattan shelter affiliated with Covenant House, a national organization that helps kids escape homelessness. For a while she said she had a room on Burnside Avenue in the Bronx. Alvarez said she paid rent by selling marijuana and crack.

She said Covenant House decided she needed stability and placed her in a non-secure residential center in the Bronx run by the Catholic Guardian Society. That lasted for a few months, until Alvarez said she and some friends threw a party with vodka and marijuana and trashed the place.

She said she was transferred to a medium-security Catholic Guardian facility for girls in Staten Island in late 2007.

Alvarez said the group home was a dangerous, scary environment. She recalled staff frequently stealing from female residents and having sex with them. Violent outbursts from other girls were a regular occurrence. The hostile environment caused her to reassess her behavior.

“I saw how crazy that place was,” Alvarez said. “And I knew I was done being wild. I didn’t want to be in there forever.”

Alvarez said she wanted to return to her high school for senior year, but said the group home wouldn’t allow it, and instead enrolled her in a GED program.

“I was devastated, because I had busted my ass getting good grades,” Alvarez said.

She got her GED in April of 2008, and continued to show good behavior. She said she left the group home in the winter of 2008 and got an apartment in the Lillian Wald Houses on the Lower East Side, where she lives today.

For the past few years, Alvarez said she has worked as an early childhood educator in nurseries and schools. She said she often takes part-time service industry jobs to help pay the bills.

In 2011, she began coming to The Door, an organization that provides services to at-risk youth, and soon became a regular in the music studio. She was eventually chosen by the staff to work there as a mentor, and said she now knows what she would ultimately like to do with her life.

“They don’t have a place like The Door in a lot of cities,” Alvarez said. “I am lucky to have this safe space to come to, to hang out and practice my music. My dream is to start a place like The Door that provides resources to kids who don’t have them.”

Niasia Alvarez Talks About How She Uses Music In Her Life

 

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